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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Trio for Piano, Violin and Horn in E flat major, Op. 40 [27:07]
Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, Op. 78 [24:57]
Sonata for Piano and Violin in D minor, Op. 108 [20:15]
Bojidara Kouzmanova-Vladar (violin)
Wolfgang Vladar (horn)
Magda Amara (piano)
rec. Studio Tonzauber, Konzerthaus Vienna, 2016

All three artists recorded on this disc are internationally recognised for their impressive achievements as executant musicians. All are based in Vienna but only one of them – Wolfgang Vladar – is Viennese-born. Bojidara Kouzmanova-Vladar is a native Bulgarian and Magda Amara hails from Moscow.

The Horn Trio, a work in four movements scored for horn, violin and piano, was composed in 1865 in memory of Brahms’ mother, Christiane, who had died earlier that year. He adopted a rather unusual order of movements for the time (slow-fast-slow-fast) and wrote the work for natural horn (rather than valve horn, which was by then available). The CD booklet has a photograph on its front cover showing Wolfgang Vladar holding a valve horn which was presumably used for the recording. While such an instrument may not replicate the sombre and melancholic sound of the natural horn, it allows for greater virtuosity, including greater accuracy of pitch. So, no serious complaints about this matter.

The progression of the movements simulates the stages of mourning. The performance captures, with strength as well as sensitivity, the sombre mood of the slow movements and the comparative relief offered by the first fast movement, marked Scherzo (Allegro). The final movement - Allegro con brio - is played with fine zest, appropriately symbolising the recovery after mourning. But, alas, the problem of balance has not been solved. The piano is in approximately the right place on the aural stage, but the violin (played with notable intensity) is somewhat close and has acquired an edge to its tone which might have been absent with a more natural balance. The horn is too far back and the result is that we can only hear the player’s wonderful tone clearly when Brahms instructs his violinist and pianist to play softly or (occasionally) not at all. When the three play tutti one struggles to discern the horn line. So the sense of a ‘conversation’ occurring between the instruments which should inform every chamber music performance is compromised. This cannot be a fault in the playing (Vladar has played second and third horn in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) but must be attributed to the production and engineering.

For comparative purposes, I listened to two recordings of the last movement: the first by Barry Tuckwell, Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy and the other by Myron Bloom, Michael Tree and Rudolph Serkin. Both revealed notably more successful resolutions of the balance problem, with the horn having a satisfying presence. Of the three performances under discussion, Tuckwell and colleagues offer the fastest and most exciting reading of this movement but the other two lack nothing in zest and are more probing. Overall, however, the Vladar/Kouzmanova-Vladar/Amara recording remains an unsatisfying presentation of the work, despite some wonderful playing.

The two Sonatas for Violin and Piano fare better in terms of recording. The violin still sounds a little close to this listener, with consequent effects on its tone, but with the piano well into the picture and the only other instrument, that is less of a problem than in the Horn Trio. Like that work, the Opus 78 Sonata has a link with death – in this case the passing of Felix, the youngest son of Brahms’ close friend Clara Schumann. Felix, who was Brahms’ godson, was seriously ill and died before the work was completed. Brahms sent Clara an ornamental ‘leaf’ inscribed with the first twenty-four bars of the second movement Adagio and a message of condolence on the reverse. The players here present this movement with the appropriate feeling and the two fast movements which surround it are delivered with energy and finesse.

In performing the four-movement Opus 108 Sonata for Piano and Violin, the players follow the pattern of their two preceding performances by responding with vigour and sensitivity in accordance with the music’s varying moods. The second movement Adagio is delivered with immense affection without any distortion of the music and is the high point among all three performances.

I listened to extracts from Josef Suk and Julius Katchen’s recordings of these two sonatas. In their performances, I get a rare sense of ebb and flow, of sensitivity to mood, which does not, however, threaten the cohesion of the music. The American Record Guide’s Overview of Brahms’ music suggests that Suk has ‘…lovely tone, but little intensity…’ in these sonatas. Perhaps that is partly due to the engineering, which avoids spotlighting and offers a relatively natural, concert hall balance. From Suk and Katchen, one hears the warmer, romantic side of Brahms’ musical personality, whereas Kouzmanova-Vladar and Amara incline more to Brahms the classicist.

The notes which accompany this production contain a short, generalised discussion of Brahms’ use of music to express his thoughts and feelings. There is no specific information about these three pieces apart from a list of the movements and their timings. Brief summaries of the three players’ careers are provided.

Rob W McKenzie



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